Memoirs of a Luftwaffe Nachrichten Veteran
The following was written by Hans Thielemann. Hans served during World War Two in the signals branch of the Luftwaffe, in a Nachtrichten unit. His story is an amazing one, and one straight from the heart. In this brief overview of his life, Hans recounts a variety of emotions and recollections and provides a valuable glimpse into the experiences of many men during the period. Hans ended WWII in the Kurland Pocket and was one of the lucky few to make it home alive from Soviet captivity.
My name is Hans Thielemann. I was born in 1923 in Berlin, Germany. My birth year, 1923, was an exceptionally bad one for the life expectancy of baby boys. Only 30% of us lived past the age of 22. The rest vanished in World War II. I have written a book with the title “Luck Alone is not Enough”, based on my personal experiences during the first 30 years of my life.
All the problems in my life started on January 30, 1933, when Hitler was named chancellor by President von Hindenburg. I was 9 years old and I didn’t understand or care about politics. I could see that my family was distressed about the political developments. Family gatherings had developed into angry fights about political convictions and loud arguments continued to spoil most family events and everybody came away angry. My cousin Wolfgang and I, however, took advantage of these heated discussions and disappeared quickly into more enjoyable endeavors.
In the following years, the family scenes would gradually change because the “new order” had penetrated to the family level. The many discriminatory rules brought upon by the Nazi government made an open discussion more dangerous and difficult. In school anti-Semitic propaganda began also to permeate the teacher’s rhetoric. In one of the next school years, the teacher gave us the assignment to produce a family tree. Every pupil had to come up with documents to prove their “Aryan” ancestry at least back to their grandparents. I don’t recall if any students admitted not being true “Aryans”.
A Saturday sports program was mandated in school for those kids who were not members of the Hitler Youth. Many Berliners were opposed to the Nazis and in my school class, 90% of the students were not members of the Hitler Youth. I hated these Saturdays because it kept me away from playing together with friends, or visiting my grandparents.
My father had problems too. He was employed by International Harvester Company as a sales manager and they were laying their employees off, because most foreign companies were taken over by the Nazi government. He finally got a new job with the Royal Dutch Shell Company which was a foreign company too, but was allowed to continue its operation in Germany. Maybe that was because the CEO, Sir Henry Deterding, was an admirer of Adolf Hitler.
My father got his own sales district in the eastern part of the Province of Brandenburg and we moved to a town called Landsberg, 80 miles east of Berlin. Landsberg had a population of 45,000 and was the center of agriculture and forest industry.
Changing schools is always a difficult problem for kids and here I had an especially nasty political difficulty. In this small town apparently everybody was for Hitler and I was the only student in a school of 400 who was not a member of the Hitler Youth. That brought on constant pressure from the teachers and the other pupils. The teacher wanted to know why I wasn’t a member and made it quite clear that it was “scandalous” not to belong. My excuse was a leg injury that I had suffered in my first school year that had left me with a permanent disability. In that Landsberg school, I had to avoid all political discussions and had to talk “politically correct” to avoid being sent to a concentration camp. I was, however, able to finish school at the top of the class and without joining the Hitler Youth.
I was 16 years old when World War II started and was in the second year of an apprenticeship in ophthalmic optics. I was soon called up for a physical to determine my military draft status. Of course, the military doctors didn’t care about my leg injuries as long as I could stand up and hold a rifle. They needed fresh cannon fodder and declared me fit to serve. That upset my parents. They had experienced World War I and knew what was coming. If I had to serve, I wanted to be in a technical field and I signed up as an AirForce Technician which required a 4-year duty. Since I was under 18 years old, my father had to sign my papers and he refused to do so. Only after much discussion did he finally give his ok.
My family’s private life was of course severely influenced by the war. My father lost his sales job because during the war the government distributed all petroleum products. We had to move to a much smaller house to save money. From food rationing to the constant barrage by the Nazi propaganda we were reminded daily that Germany was once more in a nonsensical war. My parent’s radio had a shortwave capability so we were able to listen to their side, primarily the BBC. This listening to the enemy was a felony and if one spread such information, one would for sure go to a concentration camp or even face the death penalty. As a teenager I tried to ignore these restrictions, but extreme caution always had to be on my mind. If I didn’t think before I opened my mouth, it might have been too late to avoid severe punishment. I couldn’t even trust other teenagers, because they might report a slip of the tongue to the police or the Nazi party. Some kids even turned their parents in.
After I had just finished my apprenticeship and passed all the required tests, I got a registered letter which ordered me to report to the National Labor Service or Reichsarbeitdienst – RAD as it was called, on October 15,1941. Not quite 18 years old, I reported to the indicated unit, about 60miles from where my parents lived. This was a 6-month service prior to the military draft. After basic training in para-military fashion, we were shipped to an ammunition factory north of the city of Berlin. Here we manned an assembly line for 3″ artillery shells under the supervision of military personnel. I was assigned to the final inspection position, where I measured and corrected the position of the primer with respect to the fuse of the shell. The primer was the highly explosive nitro-pent a material that triggered the shell’s explosive material. It was a very dangerous job because if I dropped the primer, or hit it too hard it could explode. The RAD also built roads and airstrips, often right behind the front lines.
When I came home from my RAD service my military draft order arrived and I was off to the Air Force Boot Camp near Berlin in April of 1942. The unit was the 15. (Funk Ersatz) Luftnachrichten Regiment d. Oberbefehlshabers der Luftwaffe (Herman Göring).
After 4 month of training I was sent to Airfleet 1 stationed in Riga, Latvia which gave aerial support to the northern Russian Front sector. They passed me on to 3.Komp.(Ln.Verb.) Luftnachrichten Regiment 31 – a Liaison Communications Group in Siverskaja, about 40 miles south of Leningrad. This company had liaison officers with communication vans at various Army Command Posts to keep the Army and Airforce in constant communication. I got stationed at the 170th Infantry Division about 30 miles east of Leningrad, which was involved in eliminating a first Russian attempt to re-establish land access to the besieged city of Leningrad. This attempt failed with heavy losses to the Russian Army.
Returning to my base unit, I was transferred to temporarily serve as an airborne radio operator with an aerial reconnaissance squadron. On my sixth flight the aircraft, a Focke Wulf 189, was shot down and we crash landed behind the German lines. I was the only survivor and after recovering from my injuries, I was ordered back to the liaison company, which had been renamed Ln.Verb.Comp. z.b.V. 1.
I took part in various battles in northern Russia and was assigned to numerous Army units during the Russian breakthrough at Nevel and the battles around Narwa, Estonia, and several others and retreated with the 16th and18th Army into Kurland. I had assignments with the XXVI.AK, II.AK, 270.I.D.,Armee Abteilung Narwa, Kampfgruppe Berlin, XLIII.AK, XXXVIII.AK, VI.SS-Korps,24.I.D., and finally the 12.Panzer-Division, always in a liaison position.
Army Groupe North had been cut off from the rest of the German armies to the south and west by October 1944. We were now besieged in the so-called Fortress Kurland in Latvia. Here we faced numerous battles until the end of the war on May 8, 1945, when Army Group Kurland also had to surrender. Rather than marching into a Russian POW camp I decided to try and “hike back to Berlin” 600 miles to the Southwest.
This was certainly an ambitious and super optimistic idea, born in the mind of a 21-year-old man. I started out on May 10 and after 6 weeks of hiking, I was arrested, now in civilian clothes, by the NKVD (the Russian Gestapo)in a train. While in jail, I was accused of being a British spy because I had talked to a fellow prisoner in the English language. It was the only language in which we could communicate reasonably well.
I finally ended up in the ill-famed NKVD/KGB prison in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. I spent 16 days in jail when after numerous interrogations, I was able to convince the Jewish commissar that I was just an ordinary soldierwho wanted to get home from the damn war. He sent me to the Vilnius POW camp. I could have faced a firing squad.
In the POW camp, my deteriorating health was the reason for an early release. I was back in Berlin on October 30, 1945, four years after I had been drafted, and 6 months after the war ended. I was the first soldier of my unit who was back in Germany. Most of the other men didn’t return until 1948 and many of them never came back. I was among the first 2% of German PoWs who were released by the Russians.
When I came back from the war I was a homeless person because the part of Germany where my parents lived, had been given to Poland and my mother had been deported by the Polish Administration.
In Berlin I found my mother at a construction site, recycling bricks of a bombed out building. She had never done anything like that before, but if one didn’t work, one didn’t get a food rationing cards. As a returning PoW I got food tickets for 10 days and if I decided to stay in Berlin, I would have to take any job just to get food. I certainly didn’t like how the Russians were running the city. Everything of any value was ripped off and shipped to Russia, and they treated people just like the Nazis did.
My relatives living in the US occupation zone invited me to stay with them and they helped me to get re-established. In 1946 I was able to return to my profession in ophthalmic optics in Stuttgart and got married there. In 1953 I feared that the uprising in Eastern Germany might be the precursor to the next war and I emigrated to Canada. I celebrated my 30th birthday in Grande Prairie, Alberta, located at 55 North Latitude and 119 West longitude, which was as far north as the PoW camp in Lithuania, but nearly halfway around the world to the West.
In Canada I had to work in totally unfamiliar professions and as a consequence was not able to make a comfortable living. In 1961 a friend invited me to apply my many years of experience in optics and electronics in Santa Barbara, California. I became a registered professional engineer and for the next 30 years I worked for defense and aerospace contractors and was involved in many projects that helped to win the Cold War and the space race for the USA. Many parts that I worked on are now resting on the moon in the LRV (Lunar Rover) that was built for the Apollo program.
I retired in 1989 and moved to Whitmore to get away from world politics and write about my life.